A Young Feminist Decries the “Pink Stuff”

28 12 2011

A very serendipitous gift was bestowed on me on Christmas Day: a video of a little girl railing against gender stereotypes inside a toy store. I unwrapped a present, a book called Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs (given me by my wonderfully open and progressive mother), and showed everybody the book, announcing the title for all to hear and accepting family photographs of myself, of course, with the cherished tome in hand. Noting my interest in the topic of gender theory, my elder brother showed me the video, which featured a girl named Riley critiquing the use of colour-coded gender stereotypes in marketing. This girl must have an IQ of 140, or if she doesn’t, she will when she grows up. She is precocious:

I love her! She’s like Lisa Simpson, and Lisa Simpson is like me. Watch this clip of Lisa Simpson, when she was me in, like, 1985 when I was seven years old:

Riley is a real-life version of Lisa—and me! Just like me at her age, she doesn’t buy into the marketing bullshit, and she makes no effort to hide her disgust with the crass commercialization of sex roles. It’s like she’s saying, “this stupid pink shit is fucked up, and it makes me want to vomit!” But, of course, she is a five year-old girl, so she doesn’t say that. What struck me as amazing was her reasoning abilities. She was able to create this abstract symmetry between what girls like and what boys like: “Some girls like superheroes, some girls like princesses; some boys like superheroes, some boys like princesses”. This is pretty sophisticated thinking for a five-or-six year-old.

Most amazing of all, I think, was this little girl’s ability to cut like a laser through the smoke and mirrors of the marketing industry and exclaim that “the companies who make these try to trick the girls into buying the pink stuff instead of stuff that boys want”. So now little Riley has not only identified the unfairness of pressuring girls into buying princesses and pressuring boys into buying superheroes, but she has pinpointed the commercial mechanism which exploits these gender stereotypes to achieve a profit. I’m sorry, but that is a brilliant observation for a child so small.

It’s interesting to note the way in which the father relates to his daughter in this video. The father seems to insist that boys can have pink if they want, but the daughter seems to insist that, while this is technically so, girls are still pressured into wanting the pink princess crap while the boys are pressured into wanting the blue superhero crap. And, if we think about it, that’s true. Even if our children technically can buy cross-gender toys, they are very strongly admonished against doing so. There are social consequences to it, and little Riley is struggling in the midst of this gender fracas. At the same time, I commend Riley’s father for being a true father and taking the time to nurture his child by listening to her words, acknowledging her wisdom, and taking her to the toy store himself in the first place. Not many fathers would do even that much.

This reminds me of my childhood, which was raped away by the horrid spectre of a stepfather who hated women, black people, and gay people. Until 1986, when I turned 8, I was allowed to play with “girl stuff” as much as I wanted—both my parents were mild, good-natured, common-sensical people, if a bit religious and conservative—but once my mother divorced my father and married this odious troll from the American south, everything changed. She had to try to accommodate his stupid scruples, which included the immediate eviction of any gynaecoid play-thing. Suddenly, as boys, we weren’t allowed to play with anything that resembled women (or what women were thought to be). We were allowed to watch She-Ra: Princess of Power, but we were no longer allowed to play with the action figures themselves:

I thought that She-Ra was hot! And by hot I don’t mean sexually exploitable; I mean sexually confident. This woman was a sexual agent. She was in control, and for that reason she was admirable. But for some stupid reason, my stepfather hated the idea of his stepsons watching cartoons of women dodging lasers and throwing men over their shoulders. He hated the idea of boys liking “girl things”, and, on top of that, the idea that those “girl things” involved girls who wielded power. But every faggot loves that shit. It was all just too much of a mindfuck for his dessicated brain to handle. This is the type of gender-stupidity that I think little Riley is railing against in her father’s video.

Little Riley is an inspiration. She gives us a lesson. She is a tiny girl who helps us remember how both girls and boys can be hurt by rigid gender roles. Parents should not tell their daughters that they should like only princesses and pink stuff, and they should not tell their sons that they should like only superheroes and blue stuff. Because, even at an age as young as Riley’s, the stupidity and oppressiveness of these roles are apparent. And if you want to play the biological determinist card, I entreat you to read Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, by Cordelia Fine (who exposes the very recent, very cultural origin of the pink/blue phenomenon in her book). Reading that might make you think twice about how you treat your children. It’s all about what actually works for us as people who have to adapt to the demands of a modern world. It’s always been about that. Nothing else.

Boys Will Be Biological Determinists

7 02 2011

What do you think of this picture of Amanda Lepore? No, it isn’t a Björk album cover.

Lepore, a nightlife hostess, model, entertainer, and male-to-female transgendered woman from New Jersey, is clearly a hyperfeminine contrivance, and we could chat till the cows come home about what sort of example she sets. Some gender theorists will argue, “She only re-inforces a stereotypically feminine paradigm for women”, while other gender theorists will argue, “She does not: she transfers that expectation from women on to men”. Personally, I hardly think that she is foisting some expectation on to the average woman to be like her. Seriously? If anything, she is saying that men can be that way, too, or, simply, she is being who she wants to be, as an individual. At any rate, we must agree that her highly ceremonial physical appearance testifies to the fact that the body is a thing to be manipulated for present-day needs and desires, and not an ancestral legacy to be embalmed.

Some people–I daresay men especially–show a profound anxiety over changing things one is born with. They don’t want women to be women, and they certainly don’t want men to be women. I don’t just mean cutting off penises or getting breast implants; I mean things like hormones, hypothalamuses, amygdalae, libido, and fight-or-flight instincts. For these people, we not only are slaves to our natural machinery, but we should be. And yet, as it happens, our natural machinery also includes a capacity for self-awareness and adaptation, a drive to meet our current needs and desires. So why should we worship biological impulses which echo ancestral traits, but not those which encourage innovation?

Let us make the following proposition:

Evolution consists in the natural selection of random genetic mutations which best accommodate the novel demands of the present-day environment.

Well, if this is so, then we should be adapting to our modern-day environment, not clinging to the ancestral one. “But this requires selection of a mate with the most desirable genetic mutations”, say determinists, “and we cannot control that impulse. It is instinctive”.

I don’t buy that argument.

First, it is irrelevant whether or not one can control such an instinct anyway, because instinct itself is adaptive. That is, instinct does the work of adapting for us. For instance, if fear of insects developed as a result of some ancestral awareness of potentially lethal insect venom, then this fear-instinct didn’t exist at an earlier date, because the object of fear was not yet present to merit it. Well, this obviously means that the instinct had to have developed. So pre-existing instincts are eclipsed by newer, more relevant ones which meet novel demands, and this is just one reason why we need not cling to tradition. Determinists often argue that conscious resistance to instinct is maladaptive, but what is really maladaptive? Clinging to an obsolescent instinct which causes undue suffering, or responding to the demands of a new one? I wager the former. Anything less would be counter-evolutionary.

Second, I’m not so sure we can’t help who we choose to mate with. As explained above, we humans have a capacity for self-awareness. The fact that I am discussing it objectively with you right now testifies to that fact. Being aware of our own condition, we are aware of those choices which most suit our present-day needs. The determinist will argue, “women instinctively choose stronger men over weaker ones, because, evolutionarily, stronger men can better defend them against wild animals”. I will agree that there is nothing sexier than a big, dumb, beefy male with a dark beard, but we know that there are some women who choose a scrawnier mate over a brawnier one. But this doesn’t make them “maladaptive” or “perverse”. Men evolved to become physically stronger than women so that they could protect pregnant women from wild animals, but some women consciously realize this is no longer necessary. In one recent newspaper article I read, a man and woman were hiking in the Alaska Range when a grizzly bear appeared out of the brush and charged the woman. The man responded not by wrestling the bear to the ground, but by pulling out a gun and shooting it–something the woman could have done if she had had the gun. In such cases, male strength is irrelevant, and, realizing this, women need not seek it out. Because they are conscious of what they need and desire.

And then we get into the testosterone argument. Lordy. This has been a highly popular credo for aeons, it seems–Gloria Steinem is still trying to dispel its glamour–yet it is fundamentally flawed in terms of ethical reasoning. In its basic form, the credo states, “Men are more aggressive because of testosterone, less emotional because of the way their limbic system operates, and more libidinous because of the hypothalamus”. So, what, so what, and so what? I don’t care, I don’t care, and I don’t care. Black people are more susceptible to high cholesterol levels than white people, but that doesn’t mean they should be, and Native Americans are more susceptible to alcoholism than white people, but that doesn’t mean they should be. In addition, white people are more susceptible to skin cancer than black people because they have less melanin in their skin, but that doesn’t mean they should be–we give them skin-block so that they can live in tropical climates, because they should be able to have that experience. Why, then, should we believe that it is “natural” for males to be more sexual than females? Because of some outdated need for polygyny? Ask yourself. Is that really fair? We already know that more intelligent men are more monogamous than less intelligent men, and that both general intelligence and male monogamy are evolutionary innovations. And why should males be more aggressive than females if everybody should be as kind and as nurturing toward one another as humanly possible? After all, if it is good to be kind, why should we deny kindness where possible? To say that a man sitting at home alone with his baby shouldn’t cuddle it as much as its mother just doesn’t make any fucking sense. It’s inane and full of empty, mindless automation. And if there is some neuro-biological impediment to the realization of this vision, there is a simple solution: medicine.

People think things are good if they are natural, and bad if they are unnatural. This position is called an “appeal to nature” fallacy. What makes this position fallacious is that a thing is not necessarily good because it is natural, or bad because it is unnatural. So what if male aggression is natural? Rape and murder are natural too, but that doesn’t make them right. In fact, most rapes and murders are commited by males, but we wouldn’t say, “rape and murder are manly things”. That’s just retarded and idiotic. Similarly, airplanes are unnatural, but nobody goes around saying that they’re bad. So, no, “natural” does not equate with “good”, and “unnatural” does not equate with “bad”. Therefore, the argument that male aggression is good because it is natural is entirely vacuous.

A very brilliant friend of mine, Christine (whose culinary blog Angrycherry.com, by the way, is an unparalleled source of sumptuous, gorgeously-crafted home-spun recipes), recently recommended a book to me called Delusions of Gender: How our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, by Cordelia Fine. (Apparently there’s a new, much more fastidiously laid-out edition entitled Delusions of Gender: the Real Science behind Sex Differences.) The book’s thesis is that sex differences in the brain are not as fixed, black-and-white, or hardwired as the popular media would lead us to believe, and that our loyalty to sex difference may actually causes suffering. I don’t have a problem with sex differences per se, but I do have a problem with the preservation or justification of such differences in that they cause pain, injury, misery, suffering, torment, isolation, or depression. The book is quite stunning according to most reviews: it is incredibly rigorously scholastic, yet fun and easy to read. Thus, I look forward to reading this book, and I recommend it to anybody interested in the subject.

The point I am making in this prolix blog entry is that we need to start using the most of our brains. We need to start thinking for ourselves. No more of this, “Aw, I can’t help it. It’s instinct. I’m a boy” crap. Bullshit. People say that kind of thing as an excuse to be a dick–and they get away with it. They do have control over how they behave, so they need to stop using biological determinism to explain away crimes such as rape, assault, murder, and all the other horrible things they do to ruin people’s lives. Isn’t it all as simple as that? Do unto others as you would have done unto you? Why should it make a difference, then, if your ancestors didn’t care for babies because they had penises?